Two Horizons: A Discussion of the text of the DENIAL portion of Article IX of the Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics

This essay is a discussion of the DENIAL portion of Article IX of the Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics; its philosophical underpinnings and origins of what the statement is against with specific attention to Liberation Theology. The Denial portion of Article IX of the Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics reads:

“WE DENY that the message of Scripture derives from, or is dictated by, the interpreter’s understanding. Thus we deny that the “horizons” of the biblical writer and the interpreter may rightly “fuse” in such a way that what the text communicates to the interpreter is not ultimately controlled by the expressed meaning of the Scripture”

Introduction

Hermeneutics is a theological task by origin and at heart. The concerns of the discipline were initially aimed at finding what was said by the God who spoke in the Christian scriptures. Since (or if) he has spoken, it is prudent then of man to seek and apply what has been said. This task was allotted pre-reformation to the priests and ultimately the pope who had the final say on all scriptural matters and defined the theology of the church. Post-reformation however, everyone read the Bible for themselves as if they were hearing from the almighty himself.

This loss of papal authority meant divers Hermeneutical methods were used post reformation, with this came methods the church found questionable at least, downright unorthodox in some cases. It is against such methods and ideas that the CSBI and its Hermeneutic counterpart came about, this also means that the documents were apologetic in nature – crafted against and in response to particular challenges and trends happening due to philosophical influences on the church and its interpretation of scripture. Article IX of the Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics aims to answer the question of where the locus of meaning lies, in doing so denies the reader of any claim to self-derived meaning, rather meaning comes from the Author as found in the text. What follows is a discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of this claim with special attention to Liberation Theology.

Scientific assuredness

If Sola Scriptura is one of the maxims of the protestant reformation and the scriptures are adequate for righteousness training, we must then pay attention to adequate methods of getting at what the scriptures say. With the rules of exegesis then defined and fixed, if they are rightly applied by the reader, the right results ought to emerge at the end of the process, true and objectively so. This notion of method itself owes much to the Cartesian revolution, where the disembodied ego is able to exist outside of space and time, able to achieve meaning without any external influences. Hermeneutics then ought to be thought of as a Science under the rationalist enlightenment scheme.

The unravelling of the Cartesian ego begins with Kant in his critique of pure reason; this task is picked up by Heidegger and Gadamer both of whom peg back some the scientific assuredness of the purely rational type of Hermeneutics that assumes that if the correct methods are applied then different interpreters must have the same results. Differing results meaning the right methods were not applied and so these “Interpretive dogmatist held that there is one and only one correct approach to textual meaning: theirs. There is one true meaning on this view: a God’s-eye point of view” [1].
Horizons, Heidegger and Gadamer Heidegger in his ‘Being and Time’ (1927) lays out an ontological description of the interpretation of the world in his concept of Dasein or Being. This extends the project of Hermeneutics beyond just texts or art but as an ongoing phenomenon and in so doing helps to peg back the scientific claims of objectivity by simply pointing to the fact that all of our knowing is somewhat limited because it happens in a confined space time or a community. We cannot possibly get out of this confined space into a God’s eye view of things or texts as they are, so that the water we swim in – our environment – seeps into our specific way of seeing or reading texts. In Being and Time, he writes:
“If, when one is engaged in a particular concrete kind of interpretation, in the sense of exact textual interpretation, one likes to appeal to what ‘stands there’, then one finds that what “stands there” in the first instance is nothing other than the obvious undiscussed assumption of the person who does the interpreting” [2]

This picking apart of the world of interpretation continues with a student of Heidegger’s – Hans Georg Gadamer – who in his magnum opus, ‘Truth and Method’ (alternatively be titled ‘Truth or Method’ because of the suspicion for the natural sciences running through it [3] we find the term ‘Horizons’ and the fusion of it as used in the denial portion of article IX of the Chicago statement on Hermeneutics. Continuing the task of his Teacher and further developing the idea of the historical conditionedness of the text and the reader who is now reading the text with both (Text and Reader) separated historically from one another. The text produced is produced in a specific context and environment not to talk of the psychological frame of the writer; the reader too in his/her own and so for understanding to take place there must occur what he calls a fusion of horizons or (Horizontverschmelzung) [4]. These horizons can also be understood in other ways – Present to Past; Reader and Text; Reader and Author; Reader and Text; Parts and Whole. It is however in the sense of parts of the text and the whole that Gadamer must be understood.

In Gadamer’s scheme “I approach a text and of course the first thing I read is a phrase or a sentence…then, I use this sense I have of what the whole must be like to continue to read successive parts [or] lines [and] sentences. I keep referring those successive parts back to a sense of the whole which changes as a result of knowing more and more parts. The circularity of this interpretative engagement has to do with moving back and forth between a certain preconception about the whole that I form from studying a part, moving then to the part, back to the whole, back to the part, back to the whole and so on in a circular pattern” [5].

Another kind of science

When the commentary on Article IX denies the reader of any “hermeneutically definitive role” it is a statement directly aimed at reader-response criticism where for example Barthes suggests that the reader should be concerned with ‘writing’ the text than getting the text ‘right’. On this view, the author supplies only the raw materials of meaning; the laboratory of interpretation belongs to the reader [6].
Inside of the church itself, reader-response criticism has particular proponents in the Liberation and Feminist theologians where the prejudices, pre-judgements of the reader has the final say on the meaning of the text, is initially supplied by the reader, hence the reading becomes viciously circular. The initial meaning that emerges from the reader’s first encounter with the text is the one supplied by the reader and when he/she continues on this ideology is used to paint both the parts and the whole of the text.
For example in the reading of Mark 10: 17-22 and 5:21 – 6:1, Gerald West in the course of leading a Group Bible Study, uses a method he calls Contextual Bible Study which begins with the needs and concerns of poor and marginalised communities (In this case a group of women consisting of a Black majority from Umtata – a rural town in South Africa). The question or questions that shape the Bible study emerge from below, not from above…the theme was related to the needs and concerns of women [7]. This methodology was then used to support a suggestion that Mark 10: 17 – 22 was about Structural sin and that Mark 5:21 – 6:1 was primarily about women [8].

Conclusion

Carefully considering then the contents of the denial portion of Article IX it seems reasonable for the sake of Truthfulness to the Word not just of the Bible as a text given to us by God but of other literary works. It is Theologically Atheistic to deny the Author of any say in meaning and to allow Ideology to trump both the meaning and the significance of the text. In the words of C.S Lewis we can either ‘use’ or ‘receive’ a text, for to use is to treat it as merely as an assistance for our own activities [9].

Notes:

  1. KJV, Is there a meaning p160
  2. Paul H. Fry, ENGL 300 Introduction to Theory of Literature – ‘Passages from Heidegger’, Course handout. Yale University: Open Yale
    Courses.
  3. Chris Lawn – ‘An awed student of Heidegger who avoided his teacher’s Nazi taint’.  Times Higher Education online.
  4. Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons. 16.
  5. Paul H. Fry, ENGL 300 Introduction to Theory of Literature, Lecture 3 Transcript.
  6. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text. 153.
  7. Gerald West, ‘The Bible and the Poor’ in Christopher Rowland [Editor], The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology.145
  8. Ibid. 147.
  9. C.S Lewis, An experiment in Criticism. 88.
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